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Hollywood (2020), created by Ryan Murphy, focuses on the hidden past of the film industry, offering an alternative insight into what could have been, had the industry been more open to the talent of marginalised people. The series is painful to watch, knowing how long it would take for them to be accepted into the industry – it was only in 2002 that Halle Berry won the Oscar for best actress, and she remains the only woman of colour to have won the award. A character who caught my eye was Anna May Wong, an actress who became the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood.

The show deals sensitively with the racism towards Asian women in the film industry; however, as much as I was pleased to see it explored so honestly, I could not help but feel that Wong was perhaps misrepresented. Given that Wong has sadly been forgotten by most, despite being one of the biggest stars in Hollywood’s Golden Age (with much success also in Europe), any media that seeks to represent her must seek to do so with integrity and truthfulness. I worry that many will see the series’ revisionist take on Hollywood, with instances such as Wong being cast aside in place of Luise Rainer for a role meant for a Chinese actress in The Good Earth (1937), as minimising Wong’s achievements. Rather than taking it as gospel that she was defeated by the film industry, we must recognise that she led an amazing career that broke boundaries for Asian Americans in TV, radio, theatre, and film. As one of the first prominent Asian American actors in Hollywood history, I believe that we owe it to Wong to speak honestly about her career so that the legacy she left behind will not be extinguished.

Portrait for Piccadilly (1929)TWITTER/NITRATEDIVA

Born Wong Liu Tsong to Chinese American parents, Anna May Wong made an impact with critics and viewers alike in her first starring film role in The Toll of the Sea (1922) aged only 17. Sadly, the gushing reviews were not enough to prevent the racist treatment that Wong endured from Hollywood studios, who felt that her ethnicity prevented her from being a leading lady. Throughout her career, Wong often had to make do with stereotypical roles, being cast either as a demure ‘Butterfly’ or a scheming ‘Dragon Lady’. The role that made her famous to the American public played off these racial tropes, casting her as a villainous Mongolian slave in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Studios were also reluctant to hire her as a leading lady for any of their films due to anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting actors from kissing anyone of another race on-screen. Given that there was only one other active Asian film star, Sessue Hayakawa, at the time, Wong was given few opportunities to be the star she knew she could be. As is shown in Hollywood, Wong grew increasingly frustrated with the limited roles on offer for Asian women.

“No matter the obstacles one faces in one’s own life, they should never wholly define one’s life or legacy.”

Feeling that her talents were being wasted, she moved to Europe where she gained much more acclaim both in film and theatre. She starred in the British silent film Piccadilly (1929) as its leading lady, something that would not have been possible for her in America, and the film has since been preserved by the British Film Institute. It was in Europe that Wong also made a successful transition from the outmoded silent films to the revolutionary talkies. The significance of this transition cannot be overstated, since many actors failed to make the leap that Wong achieved. Her numerous films propelled her to international stardom, and she was revered as one of the most beautiful and fashionable women in the world. Indeed, Wong can be said to be the first Asian American fashion icon.

Wong as the Mongolian slave in The Thief of Bagdad (1924)TWITTER/WILLMCKINLEY

Some of Wong’s films have aged badly, containing the rife anti-Asian discrimination in Hollywood at the time, but many of her films are still worth watching. Along with Piccadily, Shanghai Express (1932) contains some of Wong’s best acting, and she easily overshadows the more famous Marlene Dietrich. If Wong’s success in becoming the first Chinese American Hollywood film star and fashion icon wasn’t enough, she also starred in The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951), which became the first ever TV show in the US to have an Asian American lead. Wong was set to star in Flower Drum Song (1961), an important Asian-American musical film, when she suddenly died from a heart attack aged 56.


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Wong struggled to be taken seriously by the racist Hollywood establishment, enduring much hardship in her life. The scene in Hollywood where her fictional counterpart becomes the first Asian American to win an acting Oscar was particularly heartbreaking for me, since Wong was never able to achieve this feat in real life. However, the series continues to overlook her incredible feats, in favour of a truthful depiction of her marginalisation as an Asian figure. By starring in films offering more dignified portrayals of her race, Wong also cemented the status of the Chinese American who belonged in America just as much as anyone else. These achievements are of no small importance, and they teach us that no matter the obstacles one faces in one’s own life, they should never wholly define one’s life or legacy. Such a sentiment can surely be applied to the force of nature that was Anna May Wong.

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